Trinity 23 – Matthew 22:15-22
“Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
These words of our Lord, in today’s text from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, have always been seen as one of the chief proof passages in Scripture for the distinction we make as Christians – and as Lutherans – between the spiritual and the civil kingdoms; and for our belief that a Christian is a citizen not only of God’s realm, but also of the civil realm in which he lives, with an obligation to respect and obey the civil authorities.
Just yesterday, on our civil calendar, we remembered an important aspect of the duty to their earthly nation that many have understood themselves to have, in their service in the armed forces. Others have served sacrificially in other ways, likewise out of a sense of duty to their country and to its government in this world.
Christian moral teaching has, of course, always qualified our obligation to obey our earthly government, on the basis of what the apostles told the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, when they were ordered by them to stop preaching. They replied: “We must obey God rather than men.”
So, when the civil authorities would presume to command something that God’s Word forbids, or to forbid something that God’s Word commands, a Christian will not obey.
But otherwise – such as in the matter of paying or not paying taxes – a believer will comply with the legal mandates of the earthly government under which he lives. Our citizenship in heaven is a higher citizenship, but it is not our only citizenship.
It is no doubt easier for people to obey their government when the structure of that government is built on the principle of “government by the consent of the governed.”
When a country’s lawmakers are in power by virtue having won fair and free elections, there would be few if any excuses for disobeying the laws that they pass – except, of course, if those laws are inherently sinful. It’s interesting to see that in the sixteenth century – long before the time of Thomas Jefferson or James Madison – Martin Luther already saw this.
During the time of the Exodus, when Moses felt overwhelmed by all the responsibilities that were placed upon him as the leader of the people of Israel, he arranged for the election of elders in every tribe, to carry out some of the governmental duties that he had been carrying out by himself. Luther commented on this:
“Beasts are managed by power and skill. Men should be ruled by wisdom and understanding, since man thrives on reason… Here you see that the magistrates should be chosen by the votes of the people, as reason also demands. … For to thrust government upon a people against its will is dangerous or destructive.”
It is a great blessing for us in America to be able to live under a government that receives its authorization to rule through the democratic system that we have. But this democratic system – which involves all of us – also lays a great responsibility upon all of us.
The citizens of the United States are themselves ultimately responsible for the actions – or inactions – of the government of the United States. Each of us has the ongoing opportunity – and duty – to work toward making our government to be more efficient, and making our laws to be more just: by what we advocate, and by how we vote.
For us, this is also a part of what we are to render to Caesar. But even when the government of a country lacks this kind of direct accountability to those who are governed, and even when a government is deeply flawed in many ways, its authority is still to be respected, and its laws are still to be obeyed.
The Jews of Palestine had certainly not elected the pagan Tiberius Caesar to be their emperor. Still, Jesus told them to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.
And in his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul went so far as to say that, for law-abiding people, the one in authority is “God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.”
But all of this represents only half of Jesus’ teaching today. Some men who had been sent from the Pharisees, and some Herodians, had asked him this question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”
In response, Jesus did not only tell his listeners to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, but he also told them to render to God the things that are God’s.
There are a lot more people in this world who pay their taxes, than who honor and trust in God as they should. So, this second aspect of what Jesus teaches should certainly be noted, and listened to.
The specific coin that was being talked about in today’s account was a denarius. It was the most common Roman coin of that time.
On one side was the portrait of the Emperor. And on the other side was a Latin inscription, which translates as: “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus.”
This coin was a testimony to the idolatry of the Romans, and was itself an idol. On the coin was an image of a mere man, who was insolently declared to be a divine son of a divine father.
The Herodians – who openly collaborated with the Romans – did not mind this. Their answer to the question that was posed to Jesus – Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar? – would have been an unqualified Yes.
The Pharisees, on the other hand, certainly did mind the idolatry that was concretely embodied in the coin. They would no doubt have preferred never to have to use such a coin – for paying taxes, or for any other purpose.
So, their honest answer to the question would have been No – it is not in keeping with God’s law – especially the First Commandment – to associate yourself with Roman idolatry, and to make personal use of a Roman idol – which is what handling such a coin would be in their minds.
But, the Pharisees generally kept this scruple to themselves, and did not openly criticize the Romans in this respect. They knew that if they expressed this conviction, they would get in big trouble with the Romans.
Most Jews agreed with the Pharisees on this point. They really did not like having to use these coins.
But, most Jews also agreed with the Pharisees that being open and honest about their views was not worth the grief that would come as a result. Yet there was an attempt on this day to force Jesus to be open and honest about it.
The Pharisees and the Herodians generally had very little in common with each other. But in their temporary collaboration, in trying to trick Jesus into saying something that would get him in trouble – either with the authorities, or with the crowd – they told Jesus this:
“Teacher, we know that You are true and teach the way of God truthfully.”
They were hypocrites in saying this. They were not expressing their honest convictions. But because what they said about Jesus was accurate, they were – with their own words – condemning their actual refusal to believe what Jesus was teaching.
The First Commandment, with its “You shall have no other gods before me” prohibition, does indeed condemn idolatry – whether it is the flagrant idolatry of the Romans, or the hidden idolatry that resides in the hearts of all sinful people. But implicit in this prohibition, is also a positive requirement: “You shall have me as your only God.”
The denarius that Jesus and the others were discussing, falsely claimed that Tiberius was divine. But the true Son of God – through whom the God of the Old Testament could be truly known – was right there, speaking to them, and inviting them to faith.
And according to their own words, the Pharisees and the Herodians should have been willing to heed that invitation. If they really did think that Jesus was “true,” they would have accepted his teaching, when he later said:
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
If they really did think that Jesus taught “the way of God truthfully,” they would have accepted the validity of his assurance – spoken elsewhere – that “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
And they would have staked everything – in time and in eternity – on his words. But is that what happened? This is what we are told:
“So they brought Him a denarius. And He said to them, ‘Whose image and inscription is this?’ They said to Him, ‘Caesar’s.’ And He said to them, ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they had heard these words, they marveled, and left Him and went their way.”
They marveled. But they didn’t marvel, and then stay to hear more. They marveled, and then they left him, and went away.
I suppose it can be assumed that all of us are here – in this Christian sanctuary – because we “marvel” at Jesus and his words. And we might say to someone who asks why we come to church, that it is because we know that Jesus is “true,” and teaches “the way of God truthfully.”
But does this translate into a life of rendering to God the things that are God’s – all the things that are God’s – once we leave this place of worship? We sing in a familiar hymn:
“Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were a tribute far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.”
But is that what God gets from us? Is that even a fraction of what he gets? Hear again what our Lord’s inquisitors said to him:
“Teacher, we know that You are true and teach the way of God truthfully.”
Now, they were not sincere when they said this. But they were right. They should have listened to themselves, and so listened to Jesus.
And as you listen today to their correct description of Jesus and of his teaching, God will help you to listen to your Savior.
When I am tempted to leave Christ, and go away from him, he pulls me in. And if I have left, he calls me back. Jesus teaches me: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
I often feel polluted and contaminated by my sins. I know myself to be spiritually sick. And I fear that God is disgusted with me, and may want to isolate me from himself. But Jesus teaches me:
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the presence and power of sin in my life. I sometimes feel trapped, like there is no escape from the devil’s clutches. Is there a way for me to be liberated from this? Jesus teaches me:
“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
I know that there is forgiveness for people in general, in the cross, and in God. But can I be assured that God is willing to forgive me personally?
Is Jesus really here, for me? In his Holy Supper, Jesus teaches me: “this cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins.”
But it is sometimes hard to believe this. In my weakness, I struggle to trust in something that I cannot see with my own eyes.
Does the Lord notice me in this struggle? Will he help me in my weakness? Jesus teaches me:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Jesus – who literally, word-for-word, said all these things – is indeed “true.” Jesus, who says all these things to you, is to be believed, because he teaches “the way of God truthfully.”
And as Jesus teaches the way of God truthfully to you, you learn from him how to render to Caesar, and to God, what is due to them.
All of these things are now possible for us, because Jesus himself – in the profoundest of ways – truly did render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s, on our behalf, and for our salvation.
He paid his taxes, to be sure. But he also obeyed the Jewish and Roman civil authorities, even to the point of paying with his own blood, for his “crime” of being the Son of God, and the ruler of God’s kingdom.
And in the process, he was – at a deeper level – obeying his Father in heaven, who had actually set all this in motion, so that the sins of the world would thereby be atoned for.
In the sermon that St. Peter preached to the people of Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, he explained to them that “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”
Under the decree both of Caesar’s court and of God’s, Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” He died for you, to save you, and to give you the hope of eternal life.
Therefore, as a grateful citizen of your country, render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. And, as a grateful child of God, and a citizen of his kingdom under Christ – to whom you now belong – render to God the things that are God’s: with his help doing what he commands; but even more so, believing what he promises, and by faith receiving what he gives. Amen.